Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Defense was the driving force behind San Francisco’s resurgence. The 49ers rode the number-seven-ranked scoring defense in the NFL to a 13-3 regular season record and a Super Bowl appearance, but last year was last year.
Returning nine of eleven starters from the Super Bowl, the Niners are poised to have another dominant season on defense
The line was unquestionably the strength of the defense last season. Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and company wreaked havoc on opponents on the way to the Super Bowl, but two key members (DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day) of the defensive line rotation are no longer with the team.
The Niners selected Javon Kinlaw with the fourteenth overall pick to fill the void created by the trade of DeForest Buckner and as a result every aspect of his play this season will be filtered through a Buckner colored lens. Because he was such a good player people forget that Buckner was not drafted to play in a defensive system like the one the 49ers now run and Kinlaw might be a better fit for what the team is looking for. The NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger is one who believes Kinlaw is a good fit for the 49ers defense:
Kinlaw will benefit, especially early, from other members of the line drawing most of the attention leaving him singled up on guards and centers. Last season, Buckner recorded 62 total tackles and it’s hard to see Kinlaw hitting that number, but he will cause a lot of disruption that will allow for others to make plays.
Kinlaw 2020 Projection: 45 tackles and 6 sacks.
The focus of opposing offenses this upcoming season will be Nicholas Bosa. As a rookie, Bosa was as advertised and showed the rest of the NFL that he was a full-grown man; he made his presence felt from the first game all the way through the Super Bowl where he was practically unblockable. Despite being hampered by an ankle sprain early in the season, Bosa recorded 47 tackles, 10 sacks and 52 quarterback pressures (per Pro Football Focus) on his way to being named the defensive rookie of the year. In his second season, Bosa will clean up some of the little things like falling for misdirection and bootlegs to become a more efficient player and facing Trent Williams every day in practice will make him a much better player.
Bosa 2020 Projection: 55 tackles and 12 sacks.
Bosa is not going to be the only 49ers defensive lineman who is going to get an increased share of the offenses’ attention this season, Arik Armstead will have a target on his chest as well after his breakout performance; Armstead will also be under the fan’s microscope as well after signing a five-year contract extension this offseason. Armstead is coming off of a career year, in which, he recorded 10 sacks to go along with 47 tackles. The increased attention on Armstead is likely to result in a slight dip in his overall numbers.
Armstead 2020 Projection: 48 tackles and 8 sacks.
Nick Bosa is the most valuable player on the defensive line, but Dee Ford is the key that unlocks the entire pass rush. Despite playing just 22 percent of the snaps last season Ford recorded 6½ sacks and two forced fumbles. The low number of snaps for Ford was due to the fact that he struggled with knee tendonitis, but with proper management this season Ford should see his snaps increase. Having Ford on the field for 35 to 40 percent of the snaps would be a win for the Niners.
Ford 2020 Projection: 20 tackles and 9 sacks.
The defensive line rotation will be key to the overall success of the defense in 2020. At times last year the pass rush looked tired as injuries eroded the depth up front. The 49ers were able to add Kerry Hyder in free agency and reunite him with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Under Kocurek, Hyder had his best season with the Lions in 2016 when he recorded 8 sacks as a rotational player. If Hyder can regain his past form, he will provide a definite upgrade over Anthony Zettel, who the team had to rely on to spell Bosa following Ronald Blair’s season ending injury.
When Ronald Blair tore his ACL, it derailed a breakout season for him personally and was a big blow to the defense overall. If Blair can return to form, he is the type of player that is tailor made for the wide 9 scheme that the 49ers run. Blair finished 2019 with 3 sacks, but in a fully healthy season that number should increase.
D.J Jones is another key contributor upfront who is returning from injury. Jones’ season finished with 23 tackles and 2 sacks, but most of what Jones brings to the table does not show up on his stat sheet but instead allows others to shine. A healthy season from Jones is a positive for everyone on the defense, especially the linebackers.
Fred Warner is quickly establishing himself as the best middle linebacker in the NFL; he finished 2019 with 89 solo tackles and 118 total tackles to go with 3 sacks and an interception for good measure. Warner stands to be the biggest beneficiary of a healthy and stout defensive line; his tackle numbers should increase accordingly.
Warner 2020 projection: 130 total tackles, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions.
Rookie Dre Greenlaw was forced into action when Kwon Alexander got hurt and Greenlaw proved to be a good running mate alongside Warner. Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick, exceeded expectations on his way to notching 92 total tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception. Greenlaw proved to be clutch as a rookie when he made the game-saving tackle that gave the 49ers the number-one overall seed in the NFC playoffs. Greenlaw’s stellar play has forced the 49ers into a tough decision as to who will start at Will linebacker.
Kwon Alexander, the incumbent at Will linebacker, brought speed and energy to the defense last season, which, was noticeably missing once he went down with a torn pectoral muscle on Halloween. Alexander made a miraculous return from injury to play in the playoffs but projecting him going forward is a difficult task. Alexander has had his last two regular seasons cut short by injury. It’s possible that Alexander could find himself being usurped by Greenlaw, but the 49ers say that no decision has been made at this point.
The secondary was much improved last season despite the fact the team returned everyone from a unit that did not perform well in 2018. And, despite the fact that three-quarters of the starting secondary is ticketed for some form of free agency, along with slot corner K’Waun Williams and last season’s opening day starter Ahkello Witherspoon, the Niners did not make any significant additions in the draft or free agency.
Richard Sherman remains the unquestioned leader of the unit and even though he is on the wrong side of age thirty, especially for a cornerback, he continues to play at a high level. In 2019, Sherman snatched three interceptions and recorded 61 total tackles in the regular season. Sherman gave up a couple of long completions in the playoffs, which could prompt teams to test him more this season but they should do so at their own risk.
Sherman 2020 projection: 65 tackles and 4 interceptions.
The starting cornerback opposite Sherman will likely be Emmanuel Moseley. Moseley filled in for Ahkello Witherspoon during the regular season when Witherspoon was sidelined with an injury and later during the playoffs when Witherspoon was benched. Moseley played well when he got his chance and earned the right to be the starter across from Sherman when camp opens. Whether it is Moseley or Witherspoon that earns the starting job, theirs is the side that teams will attack the most, which should give them plenty of chances to make plays.
Moseley 2020 projection: 3 interceptions (no prediction for number of tackles).
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt made for a solid, if not spectacular safety tandem last season, but despite the improved play the same concerns about the two still exist. Both Ward and Tartt have issues with injuries in their career, and each missed multiple games last season. Aside from the injuries, the biggest knock on each is their inability to create turnovers. In eleven combined seasons Tartt and Ward have combined for just five interceptions (Tartt, 3 and Ward, 2), and neither had an interception in 2019; getting interceptions out of the safety position is the biggest opportunity for improvement in the defense.
Ward 2020 projection: 68 tackles and 1 interception.
Tartt 2020 projection: 60 tackles and 1 interception.
One of the mantras of the Harbaugh era was “You either get better or you get worse, you never stay the same.” Personnel-wise, the 49ers defense is largely the same unit that had so much success last season. By all but two starters on defense, the Niners are banking on the natural progression of their young defensive core to carry the day, and in a year without organized team activities or minicamps it might pay dividends.
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